Scientists see potential for peat as fuel

Michigan team explores local renewable resource

December 26, 2006|By New York Times News Service

DETROIT --Turning corn into fuel is all the rage. But a team of Detroit area researchers has identified a potentially cheaper and more Earth-friendly fuel: peat, the half-rotted vegetation that covers a large part of Michigan.

The scientists, from the University of Detroit-Mercy and Wayne State University, are working to develop what they call "pethanol" to run small, fuel-cell-powered vehicles such as golf carts and riding mowers.

Because peat forms naturally and requires no fertilization, it's a benefit over corn, the researchers say. And swampy Michigan has one of nation's largest peat reserves.

"Corn's biggest problem is that you only get one crop a year," said John Shewchun, an adjunct chemistry and engineering professor at Wayne State. "Peat is dirt cheap [to harvest] and ... something that is easily replenished."

The venture is one of eight projects at the Michigan-Ohio University Transportation Center, a federal initiative that aims to increase alternative fuel use, reduce road congestion and improve traffic safety and flow. The center, one of 60 nationwide created by the U.S. Department of Transportation, is a coalition of colleges: UDM, Wayne State, Grand Valley State, Bowling Green State and the University of Toledo.

It's funded by $2 million in federal funds over four years, as well as state, university and private money from the likes of Ford Motor Co. that bring the first-year total to $1.1 million, said center director Leo Hanifin, dean of UDM's College of Engineering and Science.

"The majority of it will be spent on faculty and students doing research and outreach," he said.

With the pethanol initiative, Shewchun and fellow researchers Mark Benvenuto of UDM and Charles Winter of Wayne State will hunt for synthetic enzymes to convert peat to ethanol through fermentation. Wayne State researchers have brewed pethanol using two natural enzymes, but that's not practical for wide usage.

In lab tests, pethanol has also powered a fuel cell without the use of hydrogen, which eliminates the need for hydrogen storage tanks in fuel-cell vehicles, Shewchun said.

Critics say peat mining can harm the environment by stripping the Earth of wetlands and essential elements such as carbon. But Shewchun said responsible mining includes continuous restoration of the bogs.

Turning any plant into fuel on an industrial scale is difficult and expensive. Nearly all 4 billion gallons of ethanol produced in the United States is made from corn, an effort subsidized by the federal government to the tune of about $3 a gallon, experts say. In warmer regions, the primary source for ethanol is sugar cane.

President Bush said earlier this year that ethanol could help reduce imports of Middle East oil by 75 percent in 20 years.

Opponents contend that it takes more energy to create corn ethanol than the fuel produces and the grain should be used to feed the world's hungry. And most scientists say there is not nearly enough corn - or even the land to grow it - to replace gasoline.

Benvenuto, principal investigator on the project, said that if peat works as a fuel, the researchers will look at trying other hardy native Michigan plants, such as switchgrass.

"None of the three of us thinks this will solve America's energy dependence," he said. "But it will help."

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